Like Baghdad on the Bayou

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The last time I was in an HH-60 Pave Hawk helicopter, it was screaming over the Iraqi desert, doors open, hot air blowing in like a blast furnace. That was in 2003, when I was an embedded reporter with an Air Force combat rescue unit. Today, as we tear across the woodlands of central Mississippi, I'm once again surrounded by guys in uniform whose mission is the same: to rescue people in need. But this time we are in my own country. The scene looks like a war zone, houses blown to splinters, cars abandoned on the roads, crowds of huddled refugees escaping a fallen city. It also smells like a war zone. Flying over the neighborhoods where water reaches the eaves of most houses, my nostrils burn with the fumes of diesel fuel, which swirls in rainbow iridescence in the fetid eddies below. It's the dry areas of the city that smell the worst, where the water poured in fast and receded. There, the smell is unmistakably of death — the rotting contents of abandoned refrigerators, and the corpses of the drowned.

The scene on the ground is worse. We land on a patch of dry ground at New Orleans Lakefront Airport. For days, rescue teams like this one have been doggedly shuttling survivors from the putrid streets of the city to this desolate airstrip. Hundreds and hundreds of refugees plucked from parking garages, apartment buildings, highway overpasses, the roofs of their homes, whatever high ground they could find, are now stuck standing on the dark runway, waiting for someone to take them somewhere, anywhere but here.

A handful of airport firefighters who had weathered Katrina in nearby hangers are trying to care for the throngs of dehydrated refugees coming in to what had become an impromptu staging area, radioing out for water and helicopters to get these folks to better-equipped triage areas — like New Orleans International Airport where tents and medicine were available and busses could deliver them to shelters in Texas and northern Louisiana. Large, twin-blade Chinook helicopters had been able to ferry about 400 off the strip. But more people just kept coming and coming, more than can be accommodated with so few personnel, no rations and one port-a-potty.

Earlier in the day, fights had broken out for seats on outbound helicopters. "The gang-bangers," said Jimmy Dennis, 34, a Lakefront Airport firefighter who had been up for two nights trying to care for the sick and keep order, "couldn't understand that we had to get the sick people out first." Frightened, the small band of firefighters called in ten New Orleans levee police with shotguns and semi-automatic weapons to calm the crowd. But once the situation was diffused, half the cops had to respond to other calls.

"It's absolute chaos," Col. Timothy Tarchick screams into his satellite phone, straining his voice to be heard over the thump-thump of Coast Guard and military helicopters bringing more and more desperate souls. "It’s not safe here. I've got 1,000 people who have been dropped here. We're out of food, and they're starting to get tense. I've got women separated from their children. We have no medicine. We need security. It's like fricking Baghdad here. You have got to take control of this." He is talking to the New Orleans emergency operations center but isn’t sure who has full command of the patchwork of rescue services operating in the area. Tarchick, commander of the Air Force Reserve 920th Rescue Wing, runs seven of the dozens of rescue helicopters hovering over New Orleans and bringing the stranded to dry land . He's sifting through conflicting information on where to go to help the most needy, or where to take them once they're saved. Tarchick would later find out that Lakefront was never designed to be a drop-off point in the first place and just evolved into one with out the necessary support. “Who's running things? Nobody as far as I can tell. I wish I knew."

During one of the many trips from Lakefront to pull families out of the waterlogged city that evening, Tarchick’s crew spots a signal. Below, Edna Fleming (her head nearly bald from cancer chemotherapy), her boyfriend Curtis and some of her relatives and friends have been camped for three days out at the top apartment of a two story house on Upper Line in uptown New Orleans. Early on, they could still be merry about the predicament, using their gas stove to deep-fry the frozen chicken as it thawed, and celebrating her niece Nakisha Washington's 29th birthday by opening a Jack Daniels Down Home Punch cooler that had floated by. But the waters around the building refused to recede, so day and night Curtis would flick a flashlight at helicopters when they passed. It was that light that alerted Tarchick’s team on Thursday evening.

The pilot circled the house and got into position. Two para-rescue jumpers (PJs), the Air Force’s elite operators trained to go behind enemy lines and extract downed pilots, strapped into a hoist and descended to the slippery tile roof, aiming for the chimney which crumbled under their weight. The PJs chopped through the roof and went inside, surprised to find all eight people squatting in Edna's apartment. They hoisted them out one by one. Edna's mother, Flora, came up with her walker. Her friend Mary came up with her cane. None of them brought anything more than a change of clothes and a small stash of money and medication.

Back on the airstrip at Lakefront, the stars in the sky were blacked out by a layer of smoke over the city from uncontrolled fires. The only light came from the head beams of a fire truck on the airstrip. Families stood and sat and lay down in a 100-yard-long trash-strewn column. Many had only the clothes on their backs. Some had a bit of money stashed away in pockets, shoes and handbags or a few vital medications. Others had braved the rising waters with a beloved pet. A green parakeet chirped in a white cage on the tarmac. A lanky woman stood next to two cat carriers with her teenage son. Several dogs nosed through the debris, their leashes dragging on the ground behind them.

Among the many awaiting evacuation at Lakefront was Dorothy Route, 80. Accompanied by her two-year old dachshund Shadow and her brother Van Laurant, 78, who has alzheimers, she had run into looters while trying to drive through the waters out of the city. They had very charitably given her raw chicken taken from a freezer of a Church's chicken restaurant. But then they stripped her red Jeep Cherokee of its battery. The car eventually went underwater. Rescued by chopper, she and Shadow, were trying to make sure Van didn't wander off. "He don't know what happened five minutes ago," she said sadly. "He doesn't have any idea there was a hurricane." Dorothy tells me how Van does remember the distant past, however, and likes to brag about his prowess with women when he was young and strong. He knew the ladies before Katrina, she adds. "He remembers Betsy and Camille."